Ooltewah High School basketball season canceled; school officials under gag order

Ooltewah High School basketball season canceled; school officials under gag order

January 7th, 2016 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News
We will definitely use this as a reminder and an example of how important it is for all coaches to take whatever steps necessary to make sure hazing of any kind is not tolerated
Bernard Childress, TSSAA executive director

POLL: Should Ooltewah's boys basketball season have been cancelled?

A Hamilton County Sheriff's Deputy, left, escorts School Board Superintendent Rick Smith out of the building past a group of Ooltewah students Wednesday night. Students, clockwise from left include Bria Miller, Lexie Godsey, parent Tammy Matthews, Bradley Miller, Hanna Matthews and Cade Starling.

A Hamilton County Sheriff's Deputy, left, escorts School...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

 

On the same day Ooltewah's basketball season was abruptly ended because three players are accused of raping a teammate, Hamilton County's school board chairman said there are still no answers and ended a public meeting Wednesday night in less than four minutes.

"The public is looking for answers and, unfortunately, we won't have any tonight," said Chairman Jonathan Welch, who was the only person to speak during the school board meeting. More than 100 people sat and listened as Welch read a statement assuring the public the alleged assault of the Ooltewah freshman by his basketball teammates is not being "swept under the rug."

Welch said he welcomes local law enforcement involvement in the investigation, and said he hopes it will assure the public the situation is being properly investigated.

"I ask that law enforcement be allowed to do their jobs and investigate," Welch said. "We cannot supersede any law enforcement investigation, but we can benefit from their investigation if we allow them the space to work."

Welch said anyone with information or questions pertaining to this case should contact the school board's attorney, Scott Bennett, the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office. No one else can talk about the case, he said.

Bennett said after the meeting the school system has been issued a gag order by officials in Sevier County, Tenn., where the criminal investigation into the three boys charged with aggravated rape and aggravated assault is taking place. The order prevents anyone involved in the case from commenting publicly.

Bennett said the District Attorneys' offices in Sevier and Hamilton counties separately ordered the school system not to conduct an investigation. Officials in Sevier County also said no one is allowed to discuss the case.

"Law enforcement expects us to stay out of the way," Bennett said, adding the boys charged are expected to appear in court Jan. 26.

Bennett said the school system has been told it will be given the witness statements once the investigations in Sevier and Hamilton counties are concluded. The Hamilton County school system can then handle its own internal investigation, or whatever it deems necessary.

In the meantime, school officials are not prohibited from looking at the existing anti-hazing policy and taking steps to prevent something like this from happening again, Bennett said.

He thinks hazing needs to be more specifically defined, providing adults and students with a similar understanding of what it means. He said he also thinks the school board will consider creating ways for students to safely report hazing.

Hours before the board meeting Wednesday, members of Ooltewah High School's boys varsity and junior varsity basketball teams were summoned to the school's cafeteria and told the remainder of their season is canceled, effective immediately. The freshman team will still be allowed to play.

Hamilton County School Superintendent Rick Smith, center, speaks to Dr. Greg Martin following a public meeting consisting only of a prepared statement read by Dr. Jonathan Welch Wednesday night to an overflow crowd in the school board meeting room. Welch adjourned the session with no other comments or discussion by anyone.

Hamilton County School Superintendent Rick Smith, center, speaks...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Despite floods of public criticism, the varsity basketball team has played four games since the assault of a teammate in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The Ooltewah Owls even took the court on Dec. 23, the day after three teammates allegedly assaulted and raped a freshman, sending him to the hospital with a ruptured colon and bladder, sources told the Times Free Press.

Family members of the victim previously told the Times Free Press they wanted the season to be ended.

The boys had 13 games left — seven home games and six away games.

Bernard Childress, Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association executive director, said he has been with the organization that oversees high school athletics in Tennessee for 22 years, and he can't remember a team ever canceling a season, in any sport, for disciplinary reasons.

"This would be a first in my memory, in our state," Childress said.

Childress said there has been a large community outcry for harsh punishment, with people contacting the TSSAA asking them to cancel the team's season.

"That's not our role," Childress said. "It's up to the individual school district to determine how to handle such a terrible situation."

Each year, TSSAA talks to coaches and provides them with information about handling and preventing hazing situations, Childress said.

"We make sure our schools have the information in their hands," Childress said. "Unfortunately, [hazing] still happens. We will definitely use this as a reminder and an example of how important it is for all coaches to take whatever steps necessary to make sure hazing of any kind is not tolerated."

The victim's aunt, speaking on behalf of the family, said they also want to see Ooltewah's athletic director, coach and assistant coaches placed on administrative leave while the investigation is ongoing.

The aunt will not be identified by the Times Free Press in order to protect the victim's identity.

The 15-year-old is currently home recovering after surgery and is limited in what he can do because of a colostomy bag and catheter, according to family members. It is unclear at this point how long he will need these and if additional surgeries will be needed, the family said.

Investigators were told by the victim that three other boys were abused during the trip to Gatlinburg, and the "beatings" were something done "on a regular basis in the locker room," according to the aunt. The victim also told investigators and family members one of his teammates video recorded the assault, according to the aunt.

She said the victim described the beatings to investigators as a "ritual for freshmen" and not an isolated incident.

But a group of Ooltewah High School students at Wednesday night's school board meeting said all the negative attention on their school in the past two weeks is not a fair representation.

"We love our school," said senior Hanna Matthews. "We wanted people [tonight] to know we care."

Bradley Miller, also a senior, said the whole situation is unfortunate, but not reflective of the entire school and is an opportunity to make it an even better place for students.

"We want this to be a learning lesson for our school," Miller said.

Sports Editor Stephen Hargis contributed to this story. Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.

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